A Recipe for Tutoring: What I Learned from My First Job
by Theo Popov
When I was in high school, there was this rowdy kid in my class, whom we’ll call “Pete” (no real names have been used in this blog post). Pete didn’t care about school, rarely did his homework, and when he paid attention in class it was only so that he could shout out inappropriate jokes of the that’s-what-she-said genus. His favorite tricks were sneezing loudly during a quiet test, making those around him jump in their seats, or trying to convince a teacher that there was a pancake stuck on the ceiling.
Needless to say, Pete was most people’s nightmare. But he seemed to be our English teacher’s favorite student! Mr. Jackson didn’t reprimand Pete for doing stupid things – like conflating Shakespeare and Rumi – but instead engaged him in conversation (“That’s a very interesting idea, Pete. Why do you think there were Vikings in Eastern Europe?”). Over time, Pete grew to love Mr. Jackson’s class and became an exemplary student of world literature.
I remember being mildly frustrated and jealous at the time: why wasn’t I, the good student who always did his work, getting as much recognition and encouragement as this kid, who didn’t care about school?!
Only many years later did I understand Mr. Jackson’s behavior when I myself started working in education. Like my English teacher, I too enjoy the challenge of engaging recalcitrant students and finding ways to motivate them.
To crudely paraphrase Tolstoy, all good students are alike. In a way, they are like restaurant delivery: heat it up and serve it and it’s going to taste just fine. Unmotivated students, however, are the meal you have to cook from scratch and without a recipe: it’s a challenge to use the right ingredients at the right proportions, and you probably have to try making the meal before it works out. When it finally does, however, it is a much more rewarding experience than takeout.
Some of my first tutoring experiences fresh out of college were through a NYC Department of Education program, long since defunded, which provided thirty hours free of lessons to kids from underprivileged backgrounds at high risk of dropping out of school. Most of my clients lived in “Projects”, where families of four shared one-bedroom apartments (a far cry from the cozy, sun-kissed Princeton libraries I had until recently enjoyed).
Early on, I realized the necessity to establish firm ground rules regarding study environment: the Student needs a private space for her homework; if not a desk, then at least her own corner of the table. Nobody gets to watch TV while the Student is working. The Student may not fold laundry, help cook dinner or do any other chores while doing homework. Studying is a vital activity that requires the respect of everyone in the household.
It was more challenging, however, to find ways to show some of these kids, for whom college was never on the table, why they should care about school. And the answer was never the same for two students.
Demarco, for instance, hated math. He was an excellent hip-hop dancer, whose dream was to be a train conductor for the NYC subway, and he saw no point behind equations and formulas he’d never need outside of school. It took work to convince him that geometry required the same visual thinking used in dance, or that conductors needed to use mental mental calculations similar to those he struggled with in order to keep their trains running on time.
When I found out that Demarco was naturally competitive and a bit of a perfectionist, I created “games” and “challenges” for him to complete. In addition to the problems I gave him for homework, he had the task of coming up with math problems for me to struggle with. He loved that challenge.
Within a couple months, Demarco’s unlocked motivation had turned his F’s into A’s and he was placed into the Advanced Math class.
The public school system had failed Kimani on her first school day by placing her in an age-appropriate fourth grade, even though she had just arrived from rural Nigeria, where, as a girl, she had not been allowed the privilege of education. The system had failed her every subsequent year by passing her on to the next grade level, even though she couldn’t read without sounding individual letters, nor tell the difference between a plus and a minus. When I started working with her, she was about to graduate high school without even the most fundamental abilities necessary to work a job.
At first, Kimani saw no point behind our lessons. She repeatedly told me that she was stupid and was never going to remember anything anyway. So, instead of “studying”, we “played.” We counted sticks, solved crossword puzzles, and “hanged” each other with vocabulary. We alternated reading sentences in our Grimm’s Tales book, “competing” against each other to pronounce the words correctly.
I still remember the day Kimani told me that she had stayed up late the night before to finish reading an entire fairy tale all by herself.
Through these first teaching experiments, I developed an approach that I have successfully applied with hundreds of students over the next decade. Since kids often have a wrong impression of their own abilities skewed by school experiences (Einstein’s F’s are an oft-cited example), I start by probing what motivates them. Then, through continuous use of the Socratic method, I try to keep our lessons energetic and conversational and set the level of difficulty at stimulating but not overwhelming. I take the time to congratulate kids when they do something well (“Your solution is so much better than mine!”, “I can’t believe you got the answer before I did!”) and am careful to not put them down when they make a mistake (“That’s the right approach!”, “You’re halfway there!”).
I have found that when a student starts believing she is actually good at a subject, her natural inspiration effortlessly leads her to become even better. When I see such ambition rise to the surface and even spill over other aspects of a kid’s school life, I know I’ve found the right tutoring recipe.